Before reaching the entrance of Planet Word, Washington, D.C.’s new museum of language, visitors pass by an enormous sculptural weeping willow (designed by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer), its branches festooned with hundreds of tiny speakers. “Each speaker emits a different language, and they’re motion activated,” said Rebecca Roberts, curator of programming at Planet Word. “As you walk beneath the branches, you hear 360 different world languages close enough together that it’s hard to isolate just one. You hear a kind of global babble, surprising and a little weird, too. Before you’ve even stepped into the museum you realize that this place is going to be different.”
Planet Word, which opened permanently in fall 2021, may be the world’s first museum devoted to language as a concept and not as collected material. It focuses primarily on English but also celebrates global languages, dialects, and alphabets. The museum is the brainchild of Ann Friedman who worked with words and language throughout her career, spending years as a reading teacher. When she heard about the Museum of Math in New York City, she realized that a museum about words might help people remember that spark they felt when, as children, they decoded language for the first time. “Ann dreamed it up entirely out of her head and then started consulting experts in museum building, design, content, and more,” Roberts said. “She pulled a bunch of people in, but she was 100% the inspiration for Planet Word.”
Friedman, along with her husband Thomas Friedman (the New York Times columnist and author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, among others), started to think about what a museum without a collection might look like. “Places to read a book, for example, already exist: bookstores, libraries—we’re neither of those,” Roberts said. “We wanted to reignite wonder for people who say, ‘I’m not much of a reader.’ The beauty of language doesn’t have to be confined to vehicles.”
Planet Word’s “vehicle” is a well-preserved and beautiful historic place, the Franklin Park School at 13th Street and K Street in the Mount Vernon Square area. “When you walk in past the language tree, you see a lobby floor made up of the evolution of human alphabets,” Roberts said. “The entire museum, floor to ceiling, is content.”
Friedman and her team have tried to make Planet Word accessible, but Roberts admits there is a “little bit” of pedagogy in how visitors are meant to experience the museum, by starting on the third floor and moving down to the first. The third floor is about acquiring language and etymology. “Our giant wall of words reinforces the idea that the English language is very dynamic and changing all the time, but we all get to change it,” she said. “There’s no one right way to speak English. We are never going to correct your grammar!”
For the visitor, the third-floor experiences underscore language as a “lens through which you move in the world,” Roberts said. “It isn’t just about speech and communication. We chose the languages represented to represent geographic diversity, but also to represent the languages spoken by the bigger expatriate communities in the D.C. region.”
On the second floor is the Magical Library. “It’s jaw dropping,” Roberts said. Interactive shelves alternate with dioramas that resemble framed mirrors; speak the phrase engraved at each one’s base, and a backlight lets you view a special diorama, which might be from The Phantom Tollbooth or Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea or another beloved classic.
“We paid a lot of attention to how much visitors need to be shown and how much they want to discover on their own,” Roberts said. “We’re all for reading books, but if people aren’t into books, there are rooms where you can see how language works in song lyrics, complete with a karaoke element, or a room where you can use a paint brush to see how a scene changes when you select a different adjective, for example.” Roberts noted that Planet Word wants to “reinforce that words are playful, but as you move down to the first floor, you will also learn that words are powerful.”
As visitors enter these spaces, they’ll learn about how there’s no right or wrong way to use language, but “there are ways to use its power wisely,” Roberts said. There are galleries about copywriting and advertising, with lessons on how to spot when someone is trying to use words to make you feel a certain way. Finally, a room full of videos has people telling stories about how words have changed their lives, talking about code switching, pronouns, and nicknames, for example. In the middle there’s a recording booth where anyone can add their own word story.
Planet Word also has one paid, ticketed experience, called Lexicon Lane, designed to look like a little village. “It’s a puzzle room, and you rent a case,” Roberts said. “You might receive a hat box, or a violin case, or any one of 26 items, one for each letter of the alphabet, although we haven’t put out all of them, initially. Inside you’ll find a series of word puzzles, and you have to move around the village to solve them.”
This is a museum where “everyone finds a way in,” Roberts said.